Bush's Latest Brainchild Could Be Left Behind
Ohanian Comment: The so-called liberal politicians are hopeless--they just can't let go of their commitment to NCLB, claiming insufficient funds is all that's wrong.
Our hope may be with the conservatives, who seem to see a more fundamental problem.
WASHINGTON — At first glance, President Bush seems well-positioned to expand his No Child Left Behind program of academic standards, testing and accountability into the nation's high schools.
He has larger Republican majorities in Congress. His nominee for Education secretary — a top strategist behind the 2002 legislation creating the program in grade schools — is expected to sail through a Senate confirmation hearing this week.
What's more, the nation's governors are teaming up with education experts next month for a summit on reducing high school dropout rates and raising diploma standards. It's just the sort of forum Bush used early in his first term to build bipartisan momentum for a federal mandate aimed at lifting student achievement in elementary and middle schools.
Yet education analysts and some lawmakers warn that Bush could encounter stiff resistance — from the left and the right — when he tries to expand No Child Left Behind.
"I don't know if there's political will on [Capitol] Hill to expand testing in high school," said Krista Kafer, an education policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "I don't think the consensus is there."
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who sided with Bush to pass the law, said he wouldn't do so again unless the president agreed to erase what Democrats said was a multibillion-dollar school funding shortage.
"If you want real education reform, you can't do it on the cheap," Miller said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), another key backer of the first initiative, has taken a similar position, aides said.
Among Republicans, some grumble that the federal government already is meddling too much in school affairs.
Days after the Nov. 2 election, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), incoming leader of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, wrote that Congress should "reform the No Child Left Behind Act to reverse the expanding federal role in primary and secondary education, which is a state and local function."
Pence was in a small minority within his party when he voted against the measure in 2001. But so was Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who is now House majority leader. Conservative unrest could grow; a decade ago many Republicans sought to abolish the Education Department.
Even Bush's allies on Capitol Hill say he will have to win over many GOP skeptics.
The law Bush signed in January 2002 called for school-wide reading and math tests in grades three through eight. It also requires states to spotlight schools that fail to show adequate progress from year to year, and shake up those that consistently lag.
In some states, educators have struggled to reconcile often-conflicting federal and state benchmarks.
In Florida, for example, many schools the state rated as "A" performers were found to be falling short under federal rules. Debates also flared over how to account for the predictably low marks posted by schools with high numbers of disabled students or those with limited English.
In 2003 and early 2004, Democrats made hay out of these controversies. They also criticized the gap between the amount of education aid Congress authorized under the law and the amount eventually appropriated. For example, Congress authorized up to $20.5 million for the main programs to help disadvantaged students, but — as often happens — it ended up approving only $12.7 million in actual spending.
To protest the funding gap, more than half of the Senate's Democrats voted in September 2003 to suspend key provisions of the law.
Republicans replied that total education spending had soared. And the issue subsided after Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a supporter of the original measure, emerged as Bush's challenger.
In September, Bush unveiled a plan to require testing every year in grades nine through 11. That would effectively triple the federal testing mandate for high schools — a 1994 federal law requires one year of high school testing.
Some states, including California, already test students annually through grade 11, but many states do not.
Many details of Bush's plan remain to be fleshed out, but the president made clear after his reelection that he would not relent. His plan calls for $250 million to help pay for the additional tests and $400 million to boost remedial reading programs and identify students who may need extra help at the outset of high school.
As he introduced his nominee for Education secretary on Nov. 17, Bush said: "Margaret Spellings and I are determined to extend the high standards and accountability measures of the No Child Left Behind Act to all of America's public high schools. We must ensure that a high school diploma is a sign of real achievement, so that our young people have the tools to go to college and to fill the jobs of the 21st century."
Spellings, a longtime Bush policy advisor, has been tapped to replace outgoing Education Secretary Rod Paige. She has not spoken publicly on the high school initiative since her nomination. But she is expected to face questions about it in a confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Sandy Kress, another Bush education advisor, predicted the public would back an expansion of No Child Left Behind as long as the current law was run in a "savvy and intelligent way." He said: "There can be action, and there can be bipartisan support for it."
But Kress acknowledged that the law would face renewed scrutiny as more school systems confronted steeper sanctions. The law requires repeatedly lagging schools to allow students to transfer to another campus, and it makes some students eligible for free tutoring. It also threatens to force some schools to reorganize.
Some groups are lobbying Congress to reconsider the law. In October, more than 20 education, civil rights and other advocacy groups issued a joint statement calling for an overhaul to decrease the annual testing requirements, change what they called "arbitrary" proficiency targets for schools and increase federal funding.
The alliance included the National Education Assn., which represents many teachers unions; the National School Boards Assn.; the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People; and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
But Democrats and Republicans say such broad revisions are unlikely following Bush's win Nov. 2 over Kerry.
To build his new reform coalition, Bush is likely to consult a group he got to know as leader of Texas: state governors. As it happens, many of them are also zeroing in on high schools after years of concentrating on elementary education and the teaching of basic skills such as reading and math.
They say business executives and colleges report that too many high school graduates lack crucial English, math and analytical skills.
Gov. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, a Democrat who chairs the National Governors Assn., has made "redesigning the American high school" a crusade. The organization will host an "education summit" at its winter gathering here in February.
Joining Warner will be Republican Govs. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, among others.
"The issue has struck a chord," Warner said. "The one area that's been the tail of the dog — that has not received much attention or focus over the last decade — has been high schools."
He said secondary education was neglected while reformers lavished attention on such challenges as reading instruction in elementary schools. Of Bush's initiative, Warner said: "I don't have a problem with the notion of expanding accountability and high standards to high schools. I'd want to sort through the particulars."
But he warned: "I do have a problem with some of the bureaucratic hoops and lack of flexibility" in the current law.
If Bush is to succeed with No Child Left Behind, Round 2, he may have to answer that criticism to win over enough centrist Democrats to succeed.
Los Angeles Times
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES